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Crewing Badwater

Posted Jul 20 2009 11:42am
Kira and Leigh pound the pavement

I've been chewing over what to say, and how to say it, since crewing/pacing for Leigh Corbin at Badwater July 12-15. I still don't know what to say or how to say it, other than, "Wow."

Leigh in her packed van of essentials on the way to the start of the Badwater Ultramarathon -- 135 miles in 120-degree heat and 13,000 feet of climbing.

Lynne, Alexa, George and Robert. Not pictured: Kira and me.

Crewing Badwater was incredibly strenuous, both mentally and physically, but immensely satisfying. It is so gratifying to know that our crew of six -- me, Alexa, George, Robert, Kira and Lynne -- played a key role in getting Leigh to the finish line. She, of course, did the running and deserves full credit for completing this grueling 135-mile test of -- I dunno, stamina? Sanity? Yes, among other things...

Leigh and Robert cooling off under the misters in Furnace Creek, the afternoon before the race started at 6 a.m. Monday, July 13 (for Leigh)

I had heard horror stories about crewing Badwater -- how I shouldn't do it, how I would hate it because I would be miserable (the heat, lack of sleep, dealing with cranky people in cramped quarters, etc).

A few folks told me it would be a tough, but a great and unforgettable experience -- one of those indelible life memories that never fade. They were right. Because although crewing Badwater was hard work and, at times, uncomfortable, it wasn't at all hellish or borderline insane, and it proved to be one of my most amazing experiences as a runner.

George dribbles near the start.


Everyone is different, but for me, the communal experience is what resonated: hanging out with fellow runners, working together, overcoming challenges together, cheerleading Leigh together -- without a crew, there would be no runner, and it felt good to recede into the background and do what we could to get our runner to the finish line.

Nothing else mattered as much as taking care of Leigh -- not being tired and cranky at times, not dying for a nap or craving a dip in the chilly Pacific Ocean. We were there for Leigh and that spirit imbued everything we did.

Kira with Leigh's prized pink crown.

It's hard to describe the heat of Death Valley in July without resorting to cliches. When the wind blows -- and it does, fiercely at times -- it feels like standing in front of an open oven door. It is an all-consuming heat, but (thank God) a dry heat.

Truly, I have felt more uncomfortable running near the coast in Orange County in July and dripping like an Olympic swimmer because of the humidity. During Badwater, I barely sweated. The heat sucks the moisture out of you before it gets a chance to escape your skin in the form of sweat.

George keeps his cool with Leigh.

I have worked aid stations and paced a runner before -- Robert, at the AC100 a couple of years ago -- and those experiences were very gratifying. Imagine working at a moving aid station, and pacing a runner off and on, for two days straight with little rest, and you get an idea of what Badwater was like. Toss in the heat and the magical, almost mythical vibe of the run and you are in for a special treat -- a treat that tastes all the sweeter for the incredible effort it takes to complete such an insane race.

Leigh's magic medicine bag

So, are the runners who do Badwater insane? How about the crew members? I think we are all searching for something, and pushing ourselves to thoroughly immerse ourselves in some deep experience. Saying that, I'll take "insane" any day over, what -- dull? Routine. Wouldn't you?

All of us, sans Leigh

As I write this, a fan is whirling overhead and I am drinking cold water. I am comfortable. This comfort feels all the better for having crewed at Badwater. Going through a somewhat traumatic experience (physically and, to some degree, emotionally) tends to simplify things -- at least for me.

I cannot approximate through words the true experience of crewing at Badwater -- the hilarious episodes, the stress, the little bursts of drama that inevitably erupted due to seven people (some strangers) being thrusted into something so all-encompassing, but highlights include:

Robert the terrorist (or KKK member?), Lexie and Leigh

* Kira and I amusing ourselves to no end by telling each other stupid jokes and spinning imaginary life stories about some of the runners. Fatigue and boredom and heat can result in gut-busting laughter. It sure did for Kira and I (and others, but we really cracked each other up). One needs to laugh if one wants to have a good time crewing at Badwater.

* The brief but luxurious sleeps at Panamint Springs (mile 42) and Stovepipe Wells (mile 70) in air-conditioned rooms that George was able to secure, with the help of Leigh and others. Those short rests (maybe adding up to six hours) made all the difference to me. I was expecting to pull all-nighters or, at best, crash in or under our support van. Luckily, I actually got to rest a bit on real beds in 70-degree rooms. Heaven!

Ice bandanas are a necessity, and they feel GREAT!

* The unforgettable starry nights. Kira said it best: "The stars look like diamonds from heaven." Girl, you should be writing this, instead of me.

People keep asking me now that I've crewed, do I ever want to run Badwater? I'm confident I can finish it. But do I want to? I don't know. It's more of a survival run than, say, a brutal but scenic 50-miler (or 100-miler, for that matter) in the mountains.

Seeing other runners (like Cheryl Z., right, with pacer Wendy) was a constant treat. We all cheered each other on!

A big issue for me is pavement: Badwater is all on pavement. Still, this is Badwater we're talking about, man!

Fatigue was a constant factor

Assuming I would ever be accepted into the race (it's by invitation only), I would have to say, yes -- of course I want to run it. But I have no aching desire to run it now (like, next year). I need a little more experience, anyway (a few more 100-milers, more crewing and trail work).

We had two cars, but only one could be with the runners. The six crew members were divided into teams of three (George, Alexa, Lynne on one team, me, Kira and Robert on the other) and worked six hours on, six off.

You have to really want to finish a 100-miler if you expect to finish one, I once was told. That is so true. The fire in the belly has to be strong enough to extinguish self-doubt, bone-deep pain, nausea and any other annoyances that are likely to erupt during a long run.

Me and Leigh, early on (mile 10?)

And so it goes with Badwater. When I wake up and feel that fire in my belly -- when I just know that now is the time to do it -- I will, if the running gods smile on me.

For now, I feel blessed to have had the privilege of experiencing even just a sliver of what Leigh got to experience. For that, dear Leigh, I am forever indebted to you. Much love and good vibes! And thank you, fellow crew members, for putting up with me. You are all heroic!


More images:

On the way to Badwater, before our work began

Robert, at your service

Kira (licensed massage therapist) gives Leigh a much-needed working over.

Lovely Kira

George, Lynne and Robert at the pre-race briefing

With Lynne

Leigh's first real rest, at the top of Towne Pass at around mile 60.

You go where you go.

We had lost these for a while.

I put sunscreen everywhere

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